Women Make Skating Cool

Times Staff Writer

The men stumbled and fumbled. The pairs had difficulty staying upright and aloft. Even the ice dancers couldn't keep their footing.

The women stole the spotlight at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, which ended with Michelle Kwan winning her seventh title, including a record-tying six in a row, and recording her 10th consecutive top-three finish, tying a record for women.

The four-time world champion earned a perfect 6.0 for presentation of her long program Saturday to help her fend off Olympic champion Sarah Hughes and a competition-sharp Sasha Cohen. Animated and sure of every stroke, Kwan was superior to Hughes, who gathered strength and ended with a broad smile, and to mistake-prone Cohen, whose promise has yet to yield consistent performances.

"The last two minutes I let it go and skated my heart out," Kwan said. "It felt great. It was incredible. All I can say is I felt so alive, in the moment, in the zone."

That was a distinct contrast to the U.S. men, pairs and dancers, who must improve considerably to contend for medals at the World Championships in Washington, March 24-30.

Michael Weiss won despite a fall and his inability to land a triple axel, and Olympic bronze medalist Tim Goebel slid to second after a long-program meltdown. "We're not happy with how he skated [Saturday]," said Frank Carroll, who coaches Goebel, "and we intend not to have this happen again."

Among the pairs, Tiffany Scott and Philip Dulebohn were first-time winners despite an assortment of missteps, and Rena Inoue and John Baldwin Jr. of Santa Monica persevered to finish third and earn their first trip to the world championships. "I'm lucky enough to have a partner like Rena come along and make it work," said Baldwin, who competed in singles for 14 years without significant success.

The women's final was the only event to play out before more than a few thousand people. They saw a great show. The talent was remarkable, as seventh-place finisher Beatrisa Liang of Granada Hills and eighth-place finisher Amber Corwin of Hermosa Beach landed triple-triples, and fourth-place finisher Ann Patrice McDonough and sixth-place finisher Yebin Mok of Los Angeles performed strong programs. "It was an honor just to be out there with the elite skaters," Mok said.

Although it's unusual for top skaters to return to competition the year after the Olympics, Kwan, Hughes and Cohen still have strong competitive streaks. "It's a little addictive," Hughes said. "It's something we really enjoy. Why should we stop doing it?"

Based on their performances, several skaters were chosen to go to the Four Continents event Feb. 10-16 in Beijing. Goebel, third-place finisher Ryan Jahnke and fourth-place finisher Scott Smith accepted, as did Hughes, McDonough and fifth-place finisher Jennifer Kirk. However, Hughes' coach, Robin Wagner, said Hughes might reconsider because the trip is so long.

Scott and Dulebohn, runners-up Katie Orscher and Garrett Lucash, and Inoue and Baldwin are also scheduled to go, as are ice dancers Naomi Lang and Peter Tchernyshev, and Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto. Kwan and Cohen also qualified for the Grand Prix Final in St. Petersburg, Russia, next month, but Kwan hasn't decided if she will make that trip, let alone if she will continue until 2006 to try for the gold.

"I'll get back to you on that," she said, laughing.

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